This workshop was based on the book, "Making Questions Work", by Dorothy Strachan, who also gave the presentation, and incidentally is the sister of Marian Pittman, who gave a workshop I reported on earlier. This book and two others comprise a series on facilitation that I highly recommend. I have taken three workshops, two this year and one last year, based on each text.
The workshop focused on a process for critical thinking, which is the first step in 'thinking through complex problems'. "Critical thinking is an essential skill in a situation involving complex problem solving. It doesn't necessarily move toward action per se, but it does more toward a clearer understanding of a situation - an essential prerequisite for determining effective action." (Strachan, 2007). The process of critical thinking involves four steps, each of which involves asking the right questions to help people focus on the problem. The type of problem clearly influences the type of question to be asked. The questions themselves can focus on three perspectives including: a) the individual; b) the team or organization; c) the broader context.
The first step is to make assumptions and perspectives explicit. This allows participants to understand each other and clarify mistaken assumptions, or allow each other to understand individual perspectives. Examples of questions from the workshop include:
- What has helped to shape your opinions about ...? (personal)
- What assumptions about our organization are at the heart of this issue / approach? (organizatonal)
- What are the popular perceptions about this issue? (broader context)
The second step is to understand interests and power relationships. This can help to clarify stake holders and adds a higher level of understanding of individual perspectives. Examples of questions from the workshop include:
- Whose interests are being served in this situation? (personal)
- When you hear the phrase, "positive use of power", who in the organization comes to mind? (organizatonal)
- What are the benefits of our organization being a strong leader in this sector? (broader context)
The third step is to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. Participants are encouraged to look at options and explore different, and hopefully innovative approaches to looking at complex problems. Examples of questions from the workshop include:
- What are our best intentions in addressing this issue? (personal)
- What are the potential consequences of our organization doinig nothing in this situation? (organizatonal)
- How do other cultures approach this issue? (broader context)
The fourth step is making ethical choices. In this step, participants are asked questions that help to focus on the answers received to the above questions and then to frame those answers within their own set of values and ethics. Examples of questions from the workshop include:
- What is one thing that you have learned that helped to shape your opinion about this issue? (personal)
- What criteria should guide how we make decisions? (organizatonal)
- How does our organization support the health and safety of the our community? (broader context)
While this workshop focused on the process of thinking critically and responding to particular situations, the idea of asking the right question in any form of facilitation was the main take away for the session for me. One aspect of questioning is to think of the types of answers you want, and then of the questions that will elicit those questions. Alternatively, think of answers you do not want and avoid the questions that would elicit them.
Strachan, Dorothy. (2009) Thinking Through Complex Problems. In Dorothy Strachan (2007). Making Questions Work. Ch. Six. Jossey-Bass/Wiley.